The Tories are going for the jugular and are planning a relentless assault on Ed Miliband in the run up to the next election. According to Tim Montgomerie it is the bedrock of Tory thinking on 2015. It is a pretty limited strategy which demonstrates the structural deficit at the heart Tory policy thinking. Nonetheless, it is a strategy and Labour needs to prepare for it. Character assassination is something the Tories, in particular Lynton Crosby, have proved adept at. The rightward tack of the Conservatives during the reshuffle might give them more room for manoeuvre.
While internal party management can explain most of the reshuffle moves the rightward shift will have a wider impact. In many cases the moves signal policy shifts that can be used by the Tories to define Miliband as a weak leader and metropolitan elitist. This is quite interesting in light of Lord Ashcroft’s argument that the Conservatives should not attack Miliband personally. Drawing dividing lines on policy to define Miliband and Labour could be a consequence of the reshuffle.
The most obvious battleground, as Hopi Sen wisely foresaw, will be the economy but it is not the only one available. Want Miliband to look soft on Justice matters? Why not get rid of Ken Clarke, replace him with Chris Grayling and see what happens. Want Miliband to talk more about climate change? Put a climate change sceptic in DEFRA and a politician against windfarms in the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Want Miliband to spend time defending the international aid budget? Stick Justine Greening in there to start going through spending line by line. While there are some opportunities for Labour here, particularly on climate change, there is a definite risk that Miliband could be defined by how Labour responds to this rightward shift. Mark Ferguson is right to ask do we want to be the party of the protest vote?
There are two main, and fairly obvious, ways to combat such a Tory strategy. First, the party needs to be united. If the party starts infighting then Miliband will look weak. There will be periods over the next few years when Labour’s poll ratings will fall. If sniping and briefing starts it is not going to be good for Miliband or Labour and will feed into the narrative that the Tories are trying to create. There are fault lines and landmines strewn across Labour’s path to 2015. Take your pick – friction between the two Eds, battles between Ed Balls and the unions over the pay freeze, or a flare up of the bashing of Progress.
Second, Labour’s offering at the next election has to be watertight and coherent – especially on the economy. This is easier said than done. It is very easy to veer of course in reaction to events or actions by the Government. If this is done properly people will know what a vote for Labour means for them and the country. They should be able to see this threaded throughout the policies on offer. The party is in the early stages of this and what is produced will be crucial to Labour successfully contesting the next election.
There is a certain desperation to Tory thinking but at least they know how they are going to approach 2015. Labour does not seem close to this yet. It may be inevitable after 2010’s heavy defeat or because of the party’s strong poll lead. Either way, the Labour leadership, and the wider Labour movement, needs to get its act together and show a focus and drive it has been lacking so far. It can be done but it needs to be done soon. The party needs start to imagining what it will feel like on the day after the 2015 election if we find out the Tories are in power until 2020. That should be motivation enough.